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Yale University Press
Private Lives in Renaissance Venice: Art, Architecture, and the Family / Edition 1

Private Lives in Renaissance Venice: Art, Architecture, and the Family / Edition 1

by Patricia Fortini Brown
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This book offers an engaging and original perspective on the private lives and material culture of patrician families in sixteenth-century Venice. Distinguished art historian Patricia Fortini Brown takes us behind the elegant façades of grand palaces built along the Venetian canals and examines the roles of both fine and applied arts in family life as well as the public messages that these impressive homes conveyed.
Illustrated with hundreds of varied and unusual images, the book provides a lively picture of the aristocratic lifestyle during a period of changing definitions of nobility. The author considers such wide-ranging themes as attitudes toward wealth and display, the articulation of family identity, and the visual culture of Venetian women—how they decorated their homes, dressed, undertook domestic tasks, entertained, and raised their children. Recapturing the interplay between the public and private, she offers an account of Venetian households unequalled in vividness and detail.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300102369
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 08/11/2004
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 9.00(w) x 11.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Patricia Fortini Brown is professor and chair of the department of art and archaeology at Princeton University.

Read an Excerpt


Art, Architecture, and the Family
By Patricia Fortini Brown

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Patricia Fortini Brown
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-10236-4

Chapter One

The Title of Their Gentility

In the spring of 1608 a young Englishman set off on a five-month tour of Europe and became one of the best eyewitness informants on life and customs in late Renaissance Venice. The son of a country parson in the village of Odcombe in Somerset, Thomas Coryat had attended Gloucester Hall, now Exeter College, Oxford, where he read logic, Greek, and Latin but left without a degree. At the time of his European sojourn he was a member of the household of the young Henry, Prince of Wales, where he seems to have been a sort of unofficial court jester. According to one contemporary, "sweetmeats and Coryat made up the last course at all court entertainments." His quick wit, sharp eye, and inquisitive mind come through in Coryat's Crudities, a volume recounting his adventures that he published upon his return to England (fig. 1). His portrait on the frontispiece prompted his friend Laurence Whitaker to write an explanation in rhyming couplets: "These be the three countries with their cornu-copia, That make him as famous, as Moore his Utopia. Or, Here France gives him scabs, Venice a hot Sunne, And Germanie spewes on him out of her Tunne."

Coryat's itinerary was a veritable Cook's Tour. After sailing from Dover to Calais, a trip that took seven hours, he traveled south through France and Savoy and across northern Italy to Venice, returning to England through Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. As the frontispiece illustrates, he traveled by ship, by cart, by horseback, by gondola, and - crossing the Alps - even by a sort of sedan chair, racking up nearly 2,000 miles in all.

In the dedicatory epistle to Prince Henry, Coryat laid out the aim of his arduous journey: first, to encourage the "many noble and generose yong Gallants" who followed the prince's court to "travel into transmarine nations, and to garnish their understanding with the experience of other countries;" and second, to offer the fullest description that had yet been made in the English tongue of the "Virgin Citie of Venice, the Queene of the Christian World, that Diamond set in the ring of the Adriatique gulfe, and the most resplendent mirrour of Europe... a subject worthy for the greatest Monarch in the world to reade over."

Indeed, Coryat was dazzled by Venice - by its singular setting, its exceptional beauty, and its great wealth. And the expansive character of his travels through several countries allowed him to make comparisons that reveal some of the particularities of the late Renaissance city to an outside witness. Coryat came well prepared. Having already read a history of Venice by Gasparo Contarini in English translation, he posed a rhetorical question: "Therefore what neede we more descriptions of that Citie?" But then he went on to provide the answer, observing that Contarini had left much out - particularly an account of "the antiquities and monuments of that famous citie."

Like many visitors before and after his time, Coryat was particularly struck by the "hundred and twenty goodly palaces, the greater part whereof is built upon the sides [of the Grand Canal, where they made] a very glorious and beautiful shew" (fig. 2). He went on to give a good account of the exterior aspect of the buildings, describing the characteristic loggias on the facades and the altane or terraces on the roofs, but he is less informative about what went on inside their walls. Indeed, aside from the home of his host, an Englishman with a Venetian wife, and the palace of the English ambassador, Sir Henry Wotton, his access to Venetian homes was rather limited. His detailed descriptions of the private spaces of Venetians were confined to what might be considered the extremes of a noble lifestyle: two quasi-public courtyards containing collections of antiquities, and the chambers of a courtesan - two locales that will be revisited in later chapters.

The Politia of this City

But what about the more typical palace of the Venetian patrician? Precious little remains from the interior decoration of the Renaissance period, but the Venetian writer Francesco Sansovino had described such interiors in 1581 in his Venetia città nobilissima - a monumental guidebook that laid out the attractions of the city. Son of the renowned sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino, he had a fine eye and a fluent pen. He observes that Venetians call their homes "case," or houses, instead of palazzi "out of modesty" but then goes on to describe a domestic environment of dazzling opulence. He writes:

In the past, although our ancestors were frugal they were lavish in the decoration of their houses. There are countless buildings with ceilings of bedchambers and other rooms decorated in gold and other colors and with histories painted by celebrated artists. Almost everyone has his house adorned with noble tapestries, silk drapes and gilded leather, spalliere and other things according to the time and season, and most of the bedrooms are furnished with bedsteads and chests, gilded and painted, so the cornices are loaded with gold.

Vivid echoes of such environments are scattered throughout Venice. Palazzo Trevisan in Murano, for example, although it has long been used as a warehouse for a glass factory, still has several rooms with ceilings frescoed with grotteschi and the Olympian gods, painted in the sixteenth century (fig. 3). Likewise, a late sixteenth-century fireplace in Palazzo Contarini delle Figure has a frieze of paintings above its cornices which are, as Sansovino would have put it, loaded with gold (fig. 4).

Sansovino continues:

The dressers displaying silverware, porcelain, pewter and brass, or damascene bronze are innumerable. In the Sale of great families there are racks of arms with the shields and standards of their ancestors who fought for Venice on land and at sea. I have seen sold at auction the home furnishings of a noble condemned by [an] unfortunate incident, that would have been more than a Grand Duke of Italy would wish. The same can be said of the middle and lower classes in proportion. Because there is no person so miserable, with a casa aperta [a well-equipped house in which visitors were received] that he would not have chests and bedsteads of walnut [and] green draperies [and] carpets... Such is the politia of this city.

Turning his attention to household implements, Sansovino cites pewter, copper, chains of gold, and forks and rings of silver. Even the humble domain of the kitchen featured dishes and cooking pots arranged for display, as attested by Jacopo Tintoretto's Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (fig. 179). And nowhere is the opulence of the domestic environment more evident than in Paolo Veronese's Marriage Feast at Cana, where the table settings and service rival the sumptuous dress of the wedding guests (fig. 171).

Sansovino's choice of the word politia was probably no accident. The term had two distinct, if related, meanings in the sixteenth century. One usage derived from the Greek politeia and connoted good government, the political life, and civil comportment. Another came from the Latin politus, meaning refinement in fashion, politeness of behavior, or the display of luxury. The word is related, as well, to the Italian polita or pulita: a gleaming cleanliness and orderliness. But here Sansovino was referring to the manners and material goods that added up to an urbane lifestyle of civility and refinement very much bound up with the wise governance of the city. How does he account for the opulence of the Venetian home? Two factors came to mind: first, the city's long history without invasion and pillage; and second, its mercantile activities, which brought in goods from throughout the entire world.

But there is more. Sansovino adds a concluding statement, as follows: "Therefore, with all the foreign nations converging there, the people, who exercise the arts most admirably, participate in this profit so fertile, some more, some less, according to the quality and ingenuity of the person, [but] they are made thereby too soft and licentious."


So, for all his celebration of Venice's material splendor, Sansovino introduces an ambiguous, if not discordant, note on two points. First, the forefathers of his Venetian compatriots were both frugal and profligate. And second, while his contemporaries enjoyed prosperity from a thriving culture of consumption and display, at least some had become overly addicted to a life of self-indulgence. They were, in short, a frugal people caught up in a sumptuous lifestyle about which he seemingly had mixed feelings. Within this delectable panorama of domestic environments, each richly stocked with worldly goods according to the rank of the owners, there is an uneasy sense of a less harmonious undercurrent of competition and competing values.

Thomas Coryat would also sense incongruities in Venetian society but from the perspective of an outsider. He allows that "the name of a Gentleman of Venice is esteemed a title of... eminent dignity and honour," and yet his view of such gentlemen's household arrangements was ambivalent. He asks: "Howbeit these Gentlemen do not maintaine and support the title of their gentility with a quarter of that noble state and magnificence as our English Noblemen and Gentlemen of the better sort doe? For they keepe no honourable hospitality, nor gallant retinue of servants about them, but a very frugall table, though they inhabit the most beautiful Palaces, and are inriched with as ample [means] to keepe a brave port as some of our greatest English Earles." Indeed, as a recent study has shown, the typical patrician family in Venice employed few servants in comparison to their counterparts of the same social rank elsewhere. And a close look at Veronese's banquet table suggests that it is more impressive in its table settings and costumes than in its cuisine, which appears to be a dessert course. While the quality of the wine is unknown, the comestibles are limited to simple dishes of fruit and sweetmeats.

Such restraint was, Coryat learned, due to "a certain kinde of edect made by the Senate, that they should not keepe a retinue beyond their limitation." He was referring to a succession of sumptuary laws that had been passed from time to time to control the display of wealth. While costly women's clothing and jewelry were at the top of the list, banquets and the decoration of private palaces were also favored targets for regulation. But as a later chapter will show, a close look at Venetian initiatives reveals a succession of high hopes, partial successes, and repeated disappointments.

Concordia and Unanimitas

Indeed, that anomalous image of frugality amidst material splendor sums up the dilemma of a society in transition. Central to this dilemma was a rigid social hierarchy that had prevailed in Venice (with a few adjustments) since the Serrata - the closure of the Great Council - of 1297. The nobility or order of patricians was formed at that time from only those families that had been active on the Great Council during the past four years. All others, even if they had previously played a role in the council, as well as those who would immigrate to the city later, were to be excluded from the governing class. Adjustments were made over the next three decades, with a major infusion of thirty families following the War of Chioggia at the end of the fourteenth century, but from that time forward the nobility had remained stable and virtually impenetrable.

The male members of this noble caste - such as the lordly figure of Nicolò Zen, depicted by Titian in a toga of rich black velvet lined with lynx (fig. 5) - called themselves gentlemen or zentilhuomini - Venetian dialect for gertilhuomini - and were addressed by the term clarissimo or magneto. They all sat on the Great Council, and some in the Senate, where they conducted foreign policy, passed the laws, acted as judge and jury, and elected all public officials, including the doge, from among their ranks. In the early years of the republic most were actively engaged in trade; later on they increasingly lived off their investments. This group comprised about 4.5 percent of the population.

The ideals of concordia and unanimitas - concord and unanimity - are exemplified by a print of the Great Council, a legislative body to which all adult male patricians belonged (fig. 6). Row after row of anonymous toga-clad gentlemen create a diagram of the long-standing Venetian ethos of equality and cooperation within the patriciate. Accordingly, discretion in dress and display was strongly encouraged and ostentatious showing off was not.

Below the patriciate was the order of cittadini or citizens, and - if less exalted - it was no less exclusive. Membership was either by birth or by privilege upon proof that neither the citizen in question, nor his father nor grandfather, had ever earned his living by working with his hands. While most of these men were merchants, a subset within the group was the order of secretaries who formed the permanent bureaucracy, while their patrician employers rotated in and out of office each year. The relation between the two orders is graphically displayed in a canvas painted for a state office by Tintoretto (fig. 7). The three patrician treasurers, two of them robed in rich crimson velvet lined with lynx, are depicted in the front plane paying their respects to the Virgin and SS. Sebastian, Mark, and Theodore. Their ciltadino secretaries, dressed in somber black, stand behind them - the supporting cast, so to speak, to the main protagonists in the political drama of the republic. In the lower left corner beneath the coats of arms of the three treasurers - the Pisani, the Dolfin, and the Malipiero - is the legend: UNANIMIS CONCORDIAE SIMBOLUS - symbol of unanimous concord. The highest office open to a cittadino was that of grand chancellor - a lifetime position. He ran the State Chancery, staffed with cittadino bureaucrats like himself who kept the wheels of government running smoothly.

Cittadini also formed the banche - the ruling groups of the rich and powerful Scuole Grandi, comprising six large religious lay confraternities that held considerable property throughout the city. With their families, the cittadini accounted for another 5 to 8 percent of the population. Like patricians, the male cittadini dressed in long togas in public - usually black, but red if they held certain offices - and visitors to the city would not neasily have distinguished one caste from the other.


Excerpted from PRIVATE LIVES IN RENAISSANCE VENICE by Patricia Fortini Brown Copyright © 2004 by Patricia Fortini Brown. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1The Title of Their Gentility1
2Not Having the Name of Palazzo23
3To Live Nobile53
4The Mirror of Ancient Ladies91
5The Game of Life123
6A Paradise of Venus159
7Not One but Many Separate Cities189
8Theaters of the World217
AppendixFamily Trees255
IVDa Lezze
Photograph Credits303

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